Debunking the Myth of Motorist Entitlement to Monopolize the Road

There’s an old line among opponents of cycling and pedestrian
infrastructure. It says road construction funds shouldn’t be used to
build bike lanes and sidewalks because cyclists and pedestrians don’t
contribute to the gasoline taxes that fund road construction.

gas_prices_060908_lg.jpgA bicyclist may be able to duck past high gas prices, but everyone pays for roads. Image via The Daily Green.

Josh Cohen at Network blog Publicola
is refuting that argument by examining the transportation budget in
Seattle, where local gas taxes play only a small role in the overall

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s 2009 annual report
breaks down the agency’s $340.8 million budget by funding source. The
gas tax accounts for $13.4 million, or 4 percent of that total.  The full budget breakdown (in millions):

Grants & Other: $96.9 (29 percent)
Debt: $77.4 (23 percent)
Bridging the Gap (a property-tax levy passed by voters in 2007): $60.9 (18 percent)
General Fund: $42.3 (12 percent)
Reimbursables: $42 (12 percent)
Gas Tax: $13.4 (4 percent)
Cumulative Reserve Fund: $7.6 (2 percent)

The majority of those funds are paid for by taxes and fees levied
to the general public, whether or not they own a car. It’s a far cry
from a system where drivers are carrying the full costs of roads.

Elsewhere on the Network, Bike Portland admires Boulder, Colorado’s "Driven to Drive Less" program, encouraging the public to go carless one day per week; Seattle Transit Blog
looks at the success of Tacoma, Washington’s "Not on Our Bus" campaign,
which seeks to make public transportation more pleasant by cracking
down on unlawful or disruptive conduct on buses; and Car Free Baltimore explains why rush hour parking restrictions are bad for pedestrians.

  • I’d love to see the breakdown for L.A., land of the clueless and the entitled (myself included in that, I suppose).

  • Brent

    One point I missed before seeing it in a Donald Shoup rebuttal today — cars parked on a public street without meters pay no fees for road usage either:

    Too, one wonders what happens when electric cars take the road en masse in the next few years.

  • Since repair costs are such a significant part of maintaining public roads, it would also be interesting to compare the wear and tear that multi-ton vehicles impose on streets to the relatively minor impact that bikes and peds have.

    I would hazard a guess that if this were factored into the equation, cyclists and pedestrians would be found to be paying much more than their fair share.

  • Tom Rubin

    Doing an analysis of road costs and revenues on a city basis is not particularly meaningful for a variety of reasons:
    1. Cities generally are responsible for local roads, particularly residential roads, which are not very “profitable” because of relatively low usage compared to capital and maintenance costs. Freeways, while much more expensive to build, generate far higher usage, which tends to make their cost recovery far higher. It is generally best to do such analyses on a state-by-state level, where the total governmental structures of all types, primarily state, city, and county (and some special districts, such as MTA funding carpool lanes) is a much better match of costs and user-paid revenues.
    2. There are relatively few direct city user direct charges for driving. The big ones, in Cal, are the Federal $.184/gallon for gasoline and the State of California $.18/gallon for motor fuel. The sales tax on fuel, while not all going for roads, is directly related to driving — with few exceptions, you only pay the sales tax on motor fuel when you are using the roads, and if you are using the roads, you are paying the sales tax — so, from a government-wide point of view, it is legit to add to user revenues, as it is to add in sales taxes on the purchase of auto’s and auto parts, for the same reason (if you want to know how much subsidy there is from the “general fund” to roads, you need to know how much road users are putting in to the general fund).
    3. Some of the accounting explanation above might be in need of a bit of help. Particularly, the “Grants & Other: 96.9 million (29 percent).” Most likely, these are from user fees, such as motor fuel taxes, at the federal and/or state levels. Some of the other revenues above could also be from road user fees, but I don’t have the detail to know for sure.

    As to state-by-state “profitability” of roads (fees and direct taxes for road use paid to government vs. government expenditures on roads, for 2007 (latest year with full data available), I figure that the State of Washington, as a whole, spend more on roads than it collected from road users, with a 87.4% recovery ratio, ranking it 30th overall of the 51 states + DC. Califoria was the second highest, at 163.2% recovery.

    (Paper to be published at the end of the month.)

    Tom Rubin

  • Natasha

    Tom, the data you are providing is very interesting — but I am wondering what kind of argument you would craft around this, considering that the roads that peds and cyclists are using at large are city roads and not freeways? sources on these analyses would also be great — i’m working on thinking more critically about the data I come across, and this is a really interesting argument both ways.

  • Tom Rubin

    As far as an arguement that cyclists and pedestrians don’t belong on the streets because the drivers paid for the entire cost — I don’t think much of that; in fact, I think it is pretty stupid — particularly because the costs of provisions for safe use by cyclists and pedestrians are generally pretty minor if the proper design is done in the first place and, in most cases, are not all that big a deal on retrofit (however, there are certainly exceptions to that “minor cost” generality).

    There are many functions of government that are not paid for through user fees. With the exception of a relatively small number of services that are, traditionally, wholly paid for through user fees (most commonly, utilities such as electricity and natural gas, also water and wastewater, although there have been major subsidies for some of these) and others that are pretty much mostly paid by user fees (airports and air travel), or user fees and third-party payments are a major share of revenues (hospitals), most government services either have no direct user charge at all (school, police, fire, EMT — although we are starting to see some changes in even these in response to budgetary shortfalls).

    So, my response is: cyclists do not make direct payments for roads, which are paid for by road user fees — so what? Overall, it is a good thing for the general public to provide safe cycling facilities.

    Now there is considerable question is dedicated bike lanes are the right way to go. I’m not going to get into that, but I’ll refer you to an internet buddy, John Forester, for more on this:

    However, what it really comes down to is, by far the most important thing we need to do to improve cyclist safety is to get automobile drivers to understand that cyclists have an absolute legal right to use the roads (with a few exceptions) and drivers of auto’s need to understand that it is their responsibility to behave properly.

    And, to my cyclist friends, when I am driving my car, I respect your right to operate your bike on the road; I suggest that you respect the mass of my car.

    (Can’t we all just learn to live together?)

    A few weeks ago, I was driving North on the I-5 just past Castaic, up that long 5-6% grade, when I passed a cyclist going up the hill way over in the breakdown lane. Several drivers were looking over, honking, in what appeared to be a “what the @#$%?! are you doing here” manner? Guess what, folks? HE HAD A PERFECT RIGHT TO BE THERE. The general rule in the U.S. is that a cyclist should NOT use freeways IF THERE IS A SURFACE STREET that they can reasonably use instead; but, if there is no such alternative — which there wasn’t in this case — it is within the right of the cyclist to use a freeway. (Obviously, there are many things that have to be done with care, such as always using off- and on-ramps rather than traveling on overpasses.)

    I doubt if one driver in 100 knows that.

    I WOULD like to charge cyclists — I would like to see effective training for cyclists as part of the grade school educational process, partly so that cyclists learn the right way to do things early in life and develop habits that they will use for the rest of their lives, and also for those who will NOT cycle later in life so that, at least, at one point in their lives, they did learn about the rights — and the wrongs — of cyclists. (Germany has a great program for this; there are probably others I haven’t heard of.)

    I’d like to see young cyclists licensed as part of this program — no charge — but, upon reaching the age for auto licenses, I’d like to see a charge for a bicycle license. This could be done as an endorsement on a driver’s license (if you look in the top right corner of your drivers license you will probably see “CLASS:C.” That’s the standard non-commerical license for four-wheel car drivers. If you drive a truck, you have a class A; a bus, class B (I’m simplifying these), and there are a number of other special tickets [M1 for motorcycles] — I think that there should be one for bicyclists.)

    Why? Several reasons. I think we have to REALLY up enforcement of bad things that auto drivers do to cyclists, BUT, to be fair, we also need to take enforcement action against illegal and unsafe actions by cyclists (we all know that they are out there) and, at an extreme, you could lose your cyclist license (which would also mean losing your drivers license for those that are multi-modal).

    I’d also like to see cycles licensed, with tie-in’s to high-value bicycle components with auto VIN-type serial numbers to assist with recovery of stolen bikes.

    I’d also like $100 billion and a date with … oh, sorry, never mind, I got a bit carried away with my wish list there.

    OK, one last one — how about a modified Idaho stop sign/red light law for cyclists? I would, however, like to see that, in the event of a safety incident, there is a rebuttable presumption that the cyclist was at fault.

    Tom Rubin


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